As the purple and white confetti fell from the rafters, LeBron James jumped into the huddle with his teammates. The Los Angeles Lakers were the 2019-20 NBA champions. J.R. Smith was shirtless. The players jumped and embraced each other, hearts filled with joy and euphoria. The Lakers spent 95 days in the bubble. And they will leave Orlando victorious.
The Los Angeles Lakers Earned Their “Damn Respect”
LeBron James Leads the Way
During the trophy presentation, Jeanie Buss, President of the Los Angeles Lakers, gave permission for the players to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Rajon Rondo lifted it first. His teammates gathered around him, letting out enthusiastic cheers.
James stood off to the side, as the festivities unfolded. He looked around, still in awe that at 35, he was once again a champion. There weren’t fans in the stands, only virtual ones. Automated crowd noise filled the arena, compared to the sounds of actual people. Such is the case of sports happening in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic.
But as James raised the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award, his fourth in his career, the feeling remained the same. It’s similar to his previous three NBA championships, two with the Miami Heat and one with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even in these unusual circumstances, it doesn’t take away James’s accomplishment this season. From early season dominance to a midseason shutdown, ending with his fourth championship, James earned the respect and admiration for this achievement.
“I want my damn respect too,” James said during the trophy presentation.
How it All Began
It all started with a meeting between two greats, LeBron James and Magic Johnson. It ended with a superstar coming to Los Angeles. James left the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he spent four seasons, with the pursuit of bringing a championship back to “Lakers Nation.”
The marriage between a superstar player and an iconic franchise wasn’t a perfect one at first. Johnson, who recruited James, stepped down from his general manager duties. James’s groin injury sidelined him for much of the 2018-19 season. Questions began to swirl around the league…was LeBron James entering the decline of his career?
This past offseason proved to be vital for the Lakers’ resurgence. The team made Rob Pelinka general manager, brought in Frank Vogel to be their head coach, and traded for longtime New Orleans Pelicans player Anthony Davis. Most teams take time adjusting to a new roster. Not the 2019-20 Lakers.
A Coach’s Perspective
Vogel’s calmness allowed the players to galvanize. James and Davis showcased their unity and unselfishness on both ends of the floor. And the role players, from Rondo to Dwight Howard, relied on their veteran experience to support the superstars.
But as Vogel said after the clinching Game 6, James made him believe in what the Lakers could accomplish this season.
28 PTS | 14 REB | 10 AST pic.twitter.com/Ml4eg5pmw2
— NBA (@NBA) October 12, 2020
“I have always believed in LeBron James,” Vogel said. “He’s the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen, and if you think you know, you don’t know, okay, until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group. You think you know; you don’t know,”
“It’s just been a remarkable experience coaching him and seeing him take this group that was not in the playoffs last year, the roster was put together, you know, overnight, and just taking a group and leading us to the promised land, so they say.”
A Year for the Books
It has been a year rife with heartbreak, sickness, loss, and unrest. When Kobe Bryant, the Laker legend who won five NBA championships, tragically passed away, it left a void in the organization and Southern California community. James, who had a deep connection with Bryant, felt that in the subsequent days following the Mamba’s death. And it galvanized the players.
“We got as close as you possibly can be when that moment happened,” James said on NBA TV. “It brought the whole basketball world close as well, but when you’re internal and it hits home, it just means that much more and we locked in from that very moment and said, ‘This is bigger than us.”
It wasn’t just Bryant’s death that presented an obstacle. The COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the deaths of 200,000 Americans, shut down the NBA for three months, forcing the League to restart in the Orlando bubble. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubery, Brianna Taylor, sparked protests across North America against anti-black racism and police brutality.
One Goal: An NBA Title for the Los Angeles Lakers
Once the Lakers arrived in the bubble, there was one goal in mind. Win a championship. Even through the ups and downs of living in the bubble, from the mental strain to the wildcat strike, the Lakers remained focused on finishing out the season with them on top.
“With so much going on inside the bubble and everything and us going into the unknown, it was kind of hard for me personally — once I got inside here, I said, okay, this is my mission: I want to win a championship; this is why I’m here,” James said. “It was hard for me to focus on other teams and what other players were feeling. I didn’t engage in that. I wanted to keep my energy in the right space.”
The Lakers shut down three-point shooters Damian Lillard and James Harden. They stymied rising Canadian star Jamal Murray in the Western Conference Finals. And in the NBA Finals, they halted Jimmy Butler‘s aggressive play.
Every time the Lakers lost, the team reset and bounced back with a win. Look no further than Game 6 when the Lakers defeated the Heat 106-93 to win the Championship, following the heartbreaking Game 5 loss. James recorded an NBA best 11th career Finals (28th career postseason) triple-double with 28 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists. Role players Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rondo combined for 36 points. And the Lakers ferocious defense, a staple of this team’s fabric, held the Heat to 44.3 percent shooting and created 15 turnovers.
Historic Duos for the Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers pride themselves on producing dynamic championship duos. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johbson. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Now, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Davis led the NBA Playoffs in field goal percentage (57.1 percent) and will use this inaugural championship to propel his career into superstardom.
— NBA (@NBA) October 12, 2020
“We have a great team who trusts one another,” Davis said. “It starts with me and Bron. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. I challenge him. He challenges me. It’s not always sweet and smooth, but it gets the job done. You’re going to have confrontations and arguments throughout the season to win a championship. We had our fair share. But at the end of the day, we respect one another. We respect what each one is trying to do. I respect his game, he respects my game and we just put it all together.”
When the lights turn off and the bubble is a fixture of the past, this Lakers team is forever cemented into the annals of NBA history. They won a championship in a year defined by Bryant’s tragic death, a global pandemic, and social unrest. James now has four NBA championships, four NBA Finals MVPs in his 10 Finals appearances, with no signs of slowing down.
Every championship team experiences adversity. Given the challenges the Lakers faced on and off the court, it makes their 17th title in franchise history taste even sweeter, setting themselves up for a decade of success.
Embed from Getty Images